It’s difficult to poke consistent holes into the NFL’s speculative proposal for expanding the regular season to 17 games, while also adding another layer of action and intrigue to Wild Card Weekend.
More meaningful games from September to January.
More money for all principal parties.
Greater weekly inventory for the participating TV networks.
More time for fantasy football enjoyment (commissioner’s note: pushing trade deadlines back to December).
More time for living in the proverbial football bubble during the fall and winter months.
What’s the hang-up here? It’s all so glorious!
OK, so maybe the players — whose bodies, under the current system of 16 regular-season outings, have already been taxed to the brink of exhaustion or perpetual breakdown — might object to the proposed changes, even if it means an additional $5 billion of revenue for their side (as reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter).
And what about the fans of each conference’s No. 2 playoff seed? It seems kind of cruel that a team could go 13-3 or 14-2 during the regular season … and still have to play the following weekend.
Possibly with zero rest in late December.
OK, so perhaps the same scenario played out last month, with the 13-3 Saints (NFC’s No. 3 seed) being obligated to suit up for Wild Card Weekend and eventually falling to the Vikings in overtime.
However, it was also a rare occurrence, merely the third time since 1990.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF CHANGE
You remember 1990, right?
Back then, the NFL was still five years away from awarding expansion franchises for Charlotte (Carolina Panthers) and Jacksonville; and yet, the league reveled in the potential of adding another wild card to both conferences, thus putting greater emphasis on winning division championships.
Fast forward to the present: How will these proposed changes affect the competition for 2020 and beyond? Are there similar benefits to the higher seeds?
Beyond the obvious incentive of posting the best overall record in each conference, and earning a bye, should the other three division winners care about their respective seeds at 2, 3 or 4?
The short-term answer would be yes, since the No. 6 seeds from last season (Titans, Vikings) both advanced to Divisional Playoff Weekend.
The long-term answer would be a more-emphatic yes … but for different reasons:
a) Charting the 2009-18 NFL seasons, every hypothetical No. 7 seed for the AFC and NFC posted a record of 8-8 or higher.
b) For this same 10-year study, the AFC would have produced one 10-win club for the 7-seed; and the NFC would have cranked out four 10-win teams for its 7-slot.
c) From a cumulative standpoint, the AFC representative at 7 averaged 8.9 victories per year; and the NFC ticked a little higher, averaging 9.1 wins during the 10 regular seasons.
Using the 2019 standings as a reference, the Rams (NFC) and Steelers (AFC) would have been the respective 7-seeds for Wild Card Weekend.
Consequently, instead of securing the weekend off, the Packers and Chiefs (No. 2 seeds for 2019) would have encountered the Rams and Steelers during the opening round.
Would this sea change have affected the Chiefs’ eventual run to Lombardi Trophy glory?
Eh, judgment call. After all, the Titans still would have knocked off the Patriots on Wild Card Weekend; and they most likely would have faced the top-seeded Ravens the following weekend.
And we all know how that power-vs.-power matchup shook out.
THE ODDS HAVE IT
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the consolidated league has always had an even-numbered slate with the master schedule — 14 games per club from 1970-77 … and 16 games from 1978-present.
Which begs the obvious question: What would comprise the logistical makeup of a 17-game season?
a) Would the AFC and NFC alternate every year in having nine home games (instead of the standard eight) — similar to the scheduling structure for Big Ten football?
(The East and West divisions alternate between four and five league home outings per season.)
b) Every NFL club maintains the status quo of eight home/eight road games during the regular season. But would the 17th outing for each team be designated as a neutral-field event, most likely taking place outside of American soil?
If the answer lies with Option B, then how many other countries would become go-to locales for the NFL’s schedule-maker?
We already have England and Mexico in the rotation. But what about Ireland, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, France or even Canada?
Surely, the NFL has conducted in-house research for years, in terms of knowing which locales would immediately accommodate American pro football — from the standpoints of maximum fan exposure, ticket-buying potential and venue accessibility.
And yet, I cannot recall any public dissemination of such market research … outside of quietly acknowledging that Toronto (the New York City of Canada) didn’t fully embrace the notion of being the Buffalo Bills’ second home from 2008-13 — with the Bills going 1-5 in these Canadian showcases.
What’s more, we can likely rule out the Manitoba province of Winnipeg, given last year’s preseason debacle between the Packers and Raiders.
The message here: Be careful what you wish for, NFL.
On paper, it might seem romantic to sign off on regular-season games in untapped corners of the world, but it could also be a logistical nightmare for the countries which have no understanding of American football … along with the NFL clubs coming back from bye weeks (insane number of travel miles).
On the plus side, at least we know these substantive changes won’t affect the quality of Thursday Night Footall matchups.
It took a few years, but the league has finally mastered the art of bringing logistical fairness to a concept which affects every team just once per season.
But you wouldn’t know that … from all the player-driven carping which takes place every September. Like clockwork.